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Whether your eye is on a PhD or on a DPharm, is doctoral study for you?

By Ellen Schafheutle, PhD, MRPharmS, Sally Freeman, PhD, and Christopher Cutts, DClinPharm, MRPharmS

Bbar/Dreamstime.comDid you enjoy the time you spent at university? Is there a burning clinical question that you think warrants investigation? Are you seeking a professional challenge to push you in a new direction?

As the sole group of healthcare professionals familiar with all aspects of drug development and medicines use, pharmacists are equipped with the knowledge required to perform research in areas ranging from drug discovery to clinical practice.

Through doctoral study in an academic setting, pharmacists can develop their professional knowledge, skills and character to perform at a high level — for example, working as a senior scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, being involved in healthcare policy-making, leading innovation in the NHS or joining the academic workforce to educate the next generation of pharmacists.

Doctoral degrees have traditionally been full-time three-year PhD research experiences, but part-time professional doctorates that involve elements of coursework (eg, DPharm) are also now available. Whichever path is taken, doctoral students need to have strong aptitude in:

  • Critical analysis
  • Creative thinking
  • Communication (written and verbal)
  • Time management
  • Self-motivation
Source of PhD opportunities
Source of information on professional doctorates

‘How to get a PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors’
Phillips and Pugh (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Doctoral study is not for those who are easily discouraged and it usually requires a substantial financial sacrifice. Nevertheless, personal development and the potential for career advancement make it an immensely rewarding experience.

This article gives a brief overview of the options for doctoral study available to pharmacists.

Research doctorates

Doctoral research degrees are education programmes during which students undertake a research project and gain skills and methodological expertise specific to their chosen subject area. Students are encouraged increasingly to take charge of their projects and to become independent researchers.

The subject areas that pharmacists can choose to explore are diverse — spanning the natural sciences and the social sciences that underpin pharmacy (commonly referred to as “science PhDs” and “practice PhDs”, respectively). Schools of pharmacy often have research groups in each of these domains.

Next steps

  1. Think about what a doctorate will give you, the time commitment, funding, your employer’s support, your area of interest and your life outside work
  2. Think about which route is best for you
  3. Search the internet to find out about universities and courses
  4. Speak to the universities
  5. Speak to your boss
  6. Speak to supervisors and past students

A science PhD could thus be undertaken in medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, microbiology, biochemistry, pharmacokinetics, drug formulation, pharmaceutical technology, and so on. A pharmacy practice PhD could cover topics such as health policy, pharmacy workforce, evolving pharmacist roles and responsibilities, medicines optimisation or use of pharmacy services. Such topics would employ methods informed by the applied social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, political science, epidemiology and education.

Although pharmacists are most likely to study for their PhDs in a school of pharmacy, it is also possible to be enrolled in another academic department (eg, psychology or chemistry). Alternatively, a PhD may be supervised by academics at a school of pharmacy in collaboration with those from another discipline.

Following completion of a doctoral research programme, successful candidates can use post-nominals to indicate this: usually PhD (doctor of philosophy).


In the UK, PhD programmes have traditionally been three-year full-time (or six-year part-time) courses, but many UK universities are moving to four-year programmes. Students select their supervisor and project, and it is not uncommon to be mentored by more than one supervisor, each contributing different kinds of expertise. Supervisors guide and support their students for the duration of their PhD, so a good relationship is crucial.

PhD programmes have become increasingly structured and, particularly in four-year courses, formal training is now often offered to provide a grounding in research practice.

Milestones have also been incorporated, a key one being the writing of an assessed master’s-level dissertation (known as a “transfer report”), submitted at the end of year 1. The bulk of experiential research and data collection occurs during years 2 and 3, and analysis and interpretation culminate in the writing of a thesis.

The PhD thesis (which is usually around 80,000 words in length) is assessed by two examiners — one internal (from the institution where the PhD was undertaken) and one external (who will be an expert in the field of study). The assessment includes an oral examination, known as a viva voce, which serves to establish that students have indeed undertaken the research and writing themselves, and to confirm their understanding of the topic.


Entry requirements for PhD programmes vary between institutions, but an upper second honours degree (2:1) is generally a minimum requirement.

Full-time programmes attract tuition fees (at the University of Manchester this is £3,812 for UK/EU students for 2012/13), as well as fees to cover research training support costs, starting from about £2,000 per year (depending on the expense of research experiments). Competitive funding to cover these fees, plus living expenses, is available for some projects (usually set at the Research Councils UK rate of £13,794 for 2012/13).

There are opportunities to get involved in teaching to gain experience; and many pharmacists continue to undertake locum work in community or hospital pharmacy alongside their PhD studies — both to top up their income and to keep up to date with clinical practice.

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates have existed in the UK since the early 1990s. Universities provide professional doctorate programmes with the aim of producing a qualification that, although equivalent in status and challenge to a PhD, is more appropriate for those pursuing professional rather than academic careers. Universities enrol pharmacists undertaking professional doctorates from acute hospital trusts, mental health trusts, private hospitals, community pharmacy and academia.

DPharm or DClinPharm programmes are ideal for pharmacists who wish to develop a wide range of skills, including advanced and specialist practice, research, teaching, leadership and management. These may be pharmacists aspiring to:

  • Advanced or consultant level posts
  • Education and training posts
  • Research posts
  • Managerial posts

Such programmes are designed to be undertaken part time while working as a pharmacist, which can be more flexible and manageable for some people.

The title of a university’s doctorate will usually dictate the post-nominals a successful candidate can use, but it is commonly doctor of pharmacy (DPharm).


A professional doctorate usually consists of coursework and research. The coursework component is designed to help build on professional expertise by exposing students to challenging and innovative ideas in their field. Assessment is by coursework, such as assignments, preparation of an article for publication, devising a research proposal and oral presentations. This stage should normally take between 18 and 24 months to complete part time.

Common to all professional doctorates is the completion of an original piece of research. The research is then presented as a thesis, which, as with a traditional PhD, is examined by an expert in the chosen field. Usually the research project would be relevant to professional practice; in many cases research is carried out in the organisation where the student works.

The size of the research thesis is usually around 50,000 words and should normally take between 18 and 36 months to complete part time. Assessment is likely to be by a thesis or portfolio of research, an oral presentation or a viva voce examination. The nature of this study may include basic scientific research or applied research related to, for example, a management or educational setting. Like for a PhD, the area of research can be at the student’s discretion.


Professional doctorates usually take around four years, depending on the pace of the student and whether or not the university accepts any accreditation for prior learning. Some universities allow students to exit early from the programme with diplomas or masters in advanced practice.

Prices vary depending on institutions and how long a student takes to complete the programme, but UK/EU fees are likely to be between £9,000 and £13,000 for the full doctorate. Sources of funding could include employers, regional NHS resources and self-investment.  

Generally pharmacists would be expected to have a good honours degree and have a postgraduate qualification at diploma or master’s level. Some institutions will accept a substantial period of high-level practice (eg, greater than five years) in place of a postgraduate degree. Applicants should expect to be interviewed before being accepted onto the course and usually they need to show employer support.

Common questions

Is a professional doctorate equivalent to a PhD?
Yes. Both confer the title “Dr” on a successful candidate; it is simply the routes and scope of the programmes that are different.

Is a PharmD from the US like a UK DPharm?
No. The PharmD in the US is now the professional entry qualification for pharmacists, as the MPharm is in the UK.

US PharmDs are usually four years in duration, which includes intern training. US students are expected to have studied science for two to three years at university before being accepted onto a PharmD course. UK DPharm programmes represent a higher level of study and practice.

Can a pharmacist be granted a doctorate through publication?
Yes. Pharmacists who have already undertaken research (but not as part of a PhD) and published this in peer-reviewed journals may be able to be granted a PhD by publication. This may not be offered by all universities and commonly involves a much shorter thesis centring on the person’s published research.

Student and graduate views on doctoral study

Zahra Hamrang — third-year PhD student in drug delivery, School of Pharmacy, University of Manchester

“While it is highly rewarding, challenging and exciting at a personal level, I have found that a PhD has provided me with life experiences and interpersonal skills that I could not have gained through day-to-day patient interaction in the community or hospital setting. It enables me to develop as a healthcare professional who appreciates and understands the impact of science and its direct interaction with practice. I have encountered challenges, including maintaining a good work-life balance — it can be difficult to juggle preparing manuscripts and managing my research with professional considerations such as trying to keep my CPD records up to date and undertaking weekend locum pharmacist shifts.”

Mark Payne — senior clinical pharmacist, South West Yorkshire Partnerships Foundation Trust

“I chose the DPharm programme (Bradford University) because it offered a way of continuing to have clinical contact with patients and other healthcare professionals while still advancing my practice. It provided a viable alternative to management as a career prospect. The course has changed the way I think about pharmacy practice, which has been invaluable in allowing me the flexibility to move between different roles and develop solutions to problems… . You need to be able to integrate the work that is required into your day-to-day activities or you are not going to be able to manage it. You need to be able to commit your own time to writing up the evidence that is needed for the course so be prepared to sacrifice your social life, and you need to be able to make the commitment for the duration of the course.”

Helen Potter — head of medicines management, Trafford Primary Care Trust

“Following successful completion of an MSc, I decided to undertake a PhD to further develop my research skills. With an interest in regulation, my chosen subject was revalidation — ie, fitness to practise — within the pharmacy profession. Without doubt, the PhD programme has been instrumental in guiding my personal and professional development. It has changed the way I think about policy implementation and given me the confidence and insight to understand how to put policy into practice. As a member of my organisation’s performance management directorate, I now feel I have the skills and expertise to contribute effectively to the decision-making process when fitness-to-practise issues come to light. Undoubtedly, the balance of work and family life commitments throughout my PhD has been challenging and, at times, quite fraught. Nevertheless, the experience of the PhD programme has been thoroughly rewarding and one that I would highly recommend.”

Ellen Schafheutle is lecturer in law and professionalism in pharmacy, Sally Freeman is reader in medicinal chemistry and Christopher Cutts is professor of professional development and practice, all at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Manchester.

Citation: Clinical Pharmacist URI: 11100636

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